Why Isn't Anyone Doing Something? Polyvagal Theory–Frozen

Societal shutdown from fear.

Posted Feb 02, 2020

“Voters actually agree on climate change fixes. Why No Action?”

This was the headline in a recent edition of USA Today. The article discusses how the Doomsday clock, which estimates the midnight of planetary destruction, is now down to a mere 100 seconds. When I was a teenager, it was around 17 minutes, and I remember that didn’t feel great then. Why aren’t more of us doing something?

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Source: Alexander/AdobeStock

Every living creature has a neurochemical survival response to a threat. Humans have a word for it called, “anxiety.” Anxiety is a physiological reaction. There are psychological implications, but the actual reaction is not psychological. Our bodies respond to threats by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. In terms of our society today, we seem to be in the “freeze” phase.

The Polyvagal Theory

Dr. Stephen Porges has spent most of his career studying the vagus nerve, which is a core part of the autonomic nervous system1. In response to an internal or external threat, most of us have heard of “fight, flight, or freeze.” The Polyvagal Theory looks in depth at the autonomic nervous system activity of each of these phases. The most primitive reaction is the freezing or "shutting down." 

A Happy Weekend, Not

Let’s begin with a Sunday morning where you wake up and head out for a picnic with your family. Your autonomic nervous system is in a neutral to slightly pleasant balance with your sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. You are about to get into your car when you get a phone call from your boss that there is an urgent deadline. She says you need to come into work, immediately. Her tone of voice is harsh and unyielding. Although nothing physically has changed, what is happening with your body?

If you feel physically or mentally threatened, you will naturally feel anxious. This can feel like your heart racing, sweating, feeling short of breath, and even sensations of physical pain. That is an expected reaction to a stressor. Why would we call that an illness or disease? 

Now the Anger

It is now Monday morning, and you did the best that you could, which was actually a pretty great job. When you arrive at work, your boss is still in a bad mood and not only does she not thank you, she is still aggressive and puts more work on your plate. 

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Source: Tiko/AdobeStock

You feel trapped and another rush of stress hormones courses through your body. You are justifiably angry. You are not only feeling unappreciated, you feel like you will never be good enough and have no idea how this situation will change. Anger is anxiety with a chemical kick that is intended to increase your chances of survival.

Your boss sees the expression on your face and gives you even more work. It is clear that you are being targeted and are probably going to get fired. What is going to happen next? 

You’ll give up. 

You may quit your job or just not put in the effort since you are going to be fired anyway. You don’t have the courage to stand up to her and see if this is all in your imagination, if she is just in a bad mood, or if there is a compromise. You are now frozen.

Still Not Happy

Regardless of the reasons your boss still wasn’t satisfied, you feel trapped and angry when your efforts fell short of her expectations, and you went into fight mode. This still did not work and there does not seem to be any hope. The final phase is the freeze response. This is activated by a different part of the vagus nerve. There is a dramatic decrease in the heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. In humans, this can simply take the form of inaction. 

The Current State of Affairs

Now let’s look at our current societal climate. Although there has rarely been an era where groups of people have lived in such a blissful state of peaceful co-existence, for many of us, the last few years have felt more turbulent. But remember, it wasn’t too long ago when divisions were so deep, we fought a bloody civil war. 

Anxiety Phase

Personal and cultural anxiety are normal and motivates us to solve threats. But the parties have to be able to have a constructive dialogue to resolve them. Humans rose to the top of the food chain by learning how to cooperate and collectively ward off danger. The species who remained isolated did not survive. This is the reason why we have such an intense need for human connection. 

Anger

The intent of feeling anxious is to motivate us individually and collectively to solve problems. When they are overwhelming or things don’t go so smoothly, more stress hormones are released. The outcome is irrational anger, which is intended only for self-preservation. 

At this point, anger, in and of itself, has the following problems and consequences:

  • It is destructive
  • It is not subject to rational interventions.
  • It is a complete block to awareness. How can you solve a problem you don’t fully understand?
  • Labeling is also a major block to awareness.

Anger is inevitable and necessary to motivate us to move through and past the obstacles of our lives. The problem arises when it is sustained. All of us know that you never really solve a problem in the midst of a heated argument, it is a power struggle. Only when we have cooled off and discussed the issue with empathy and awareness, do we truly fix anything. It is our capacity to cooperate as a species that has allowed us to thrive.

Frozen

The current global and societal issues are intense and overwhelming, and now we are in the freeze phase. We are “shutting down.” The social aspect of the parasympathetic system is inhibited. Even the body's last defense of the sympathetic system has been turned off. The completely irrational part of the vagal response is now active. The parasympathetic tone to the vital organs is now shutting them down, including the brain. The only intention is to stay alive by remaining dormant. 

Start With Awareness 

I am not suggesting specific solutions to our societal paralysis. However, an important step is to realize that what has happened is not a character flaw in anyone, but a powerful survival response happening on a mass scale. 

Without awareness we don’t have as much of a choice as you might think, as these survival responses are so powerful. It is necessary to first understand the driving force behind all of our behaviors. The key is to work through the anger that is blocking awareness. We can solve all of these issues, we know what we have to do. But as a society, we do not yet know how to solve our anger.

There is hardly a more pressing issue than the health of our planet and the headlines were,  “Why Isn’t Anyone Doing Something About It.” I rest my case.

References

1.  Porges, Stephen, The Polyvagal Theory. Norton and Co. New York, NY, 2011.